Wrestling and Cheerleading for North Korea's Kim Jong Un

Kim Jong Un on April 9 in Pyongyang Photograph by Kyodo via AP Photo

Dennis Rodman has stopped making visits to Kim Jong Un but North Korea’s No. 1 sports fan has some new foreign guests to entertain. Japanese politician and former wrestler Antonio Inoki, best known in the West for fighting Muhammad Ali to a draw in a mixed-discipline bout in the 1970s, is leading a delegation to North Korea for a pro wrestling event this weekend.

Tagging along is rapper Pras Michel from the Fugees, who told Reuters in an interview that the trip wasn’t about politics. Pras, who directed the 2007 film Skid Row about homeless people in Los Angeles that President Obama’s Organizing for Action called “an eye-opening documentary,” says there’s nothing political about this trip to one of the world’s most repressive countries. “I’m not sure what Dennis’s motives were, but he’s an athlete and basketball player, and I’m an entertainer—there are two different agendas,” he told Reuters. “I’m purely going there to explore.”

Pras may not have a political agenda, but Kim does. The wrestling match comes at a time when the North Koreans have been firing off missiles left and right. Offended by Seth Rogen and James Franco making a movie mocking the regime? Launch some is missiles in the direction of Japan. Miffed about Pope Francis paying a visit to the South? Fire some more.

Now the wrestling match gives Kim a chance to play up one of the regime’s latest propaganda campaigns. August and September turn out to be—surprise, surprise—”the months for the people’s physical strength examination in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported on Tuesday. “With the months as an occasion, efforts are concentrate on whipping up the atmosphere for sports across the country and inspiring all the people to take part in mass sports activities.”

Muhammad Ali fighting Antonio Inoki at Budokan Hall in Tokyo on June 26, 1976
Photograph by Keystone/Getty Images

One valuable part of the regime’s sports strategy is the country’s famed cheerleading squad. An elite group of stylish young women, the North Korean cheerleading team is, as an account from Chinese radio puts it, “pretty in a natural way, self-disciplined and well-organized.” In addition, cheerleaders must come from politically correct family backgrounds: Women related to defectors or with family deemed “pro-Japanese” need not apply. Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, was a member of the team that went to the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in South Korea.

The cheerleaders haven’t crossed to the other side of the DMZ since, but they were supposed to be going to the South next month for the Asian Games. That trip is now off, however, after delegates from the two sides met last month to negotiate terms of the team’s visit. North Korea wanted to dispatch 350 cheerleaders to the games, the Korea Times reported, and have them stay on a ferry docked in the Incheon harbor. (Yes, the cheerleaders come from good families, but who knows how many would defect if not watched carefully by North Korean security?)

South Korean government officials told the media the talks broke down over money, with the Northerners storming out after hearing the South wouldn’t host the cheerleaders for free. ”At past international sporting events, it was customary to provide all accommodation free of charge for the North Koreans, but we decided to adhere to international practice this time,” an official told the Chosun Ilbo. “And under Olympic Council of Asia regulations, each country is responsible for the expenses incurred by its athletes and cheering squads.”

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